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Cardsharps, False Identities, and Pratfalls: A Preston Sturges Primer

Diana Lynn, William Demarest, and Betty Hutton in 1944’s The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection

Writer-director hyphenates are ubiquitous in comedy today, but it was virtually unheard of during the studio film era until a popular playwright named Preston Sturges convinced Paramount to let him direct. One of the first to hold both roles in talking pictures, Sturges actually began his career on Broadway before he moved on to write for Hollywood. His turn to directing was largely because he didn’t like the way other directors made his films. The legend goes that Sturges sold his script for The Great McGinty to Paramount for only $10 in exchange for the right to direct it as well.

Much like other screwball-comedy directors, Sturges was known for his manic, sly dialogue, but like a true playwright, it was his themes that truly set him apart. His satires often called out American institutions that were normally held in treacly reverence. He explored a sort of masculine fragility as well, making characters rigid with obsessions about honor and manliness the butt of the jokes. He experimented with form and structure more so than other directors of the era, and critics hail him as being ahead of his time.

Though the marquee names in Sturges’s films rotated and changed, he continually used the same company of actors in supporting roles, many of whom had been with him since his theater days. Their Greek chorus of oddball characters even for the tiniest parts brought a delightful specificity to the Sturges universe and often did much of the comedic heavy lifting.

It’s worth noting that some of Sturges’s films did not age well, particularly with regard to race and gender. A scene in The Palm Beach Story where a hunting club of rich, elderly white men drunkenly shoot up a dining car in their liquored revelry reads as less comic and more frightening today, particularly as seen from the vantage point of the black porter caught in their crossfire. Meanwhile, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is, essentially, about a pregnant teen who’s been date raped, though the film would never actually call it that.

Modern audiences may be less inclined to blithely overlook the darker aspects of these movies, but Sturges’s oeuvre is still worth remembering. His cast of beautifully distinct oddballs is endlessly delightful, but he also mischievously poked holes in the facade of American idealism and sentimentality the way only an American could.

Here are eight films considered Sturges’s best — seven of which were shot within an insanely speedy time frame of only four years while he was under contract at Paramount.

The Great McGinty (1940): The first film Sturges both wrote and directed, The Great McGinty concerns itself with politics and in particular the corruption within it. When Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy) gets pulled off a Depression-era breadline to commit voter fraud that’d make today’s Republicans hyperventilate, he quickly finds himself working for a shakedown protection racket run by, perfectly enough, a Russian mobster. The ideal puppet, McGinty’s soon successfully running for mayor and then governor only to tumble to earth in his one moment of honesty. It’s a common theme in the Sturges universe: real phonies and their subsequent fall from grace or redemption — and sometimes both.

Christmas in July (1940): Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell) is obsessed with winning a huge payday in a national advertising slogan contest. When his co-workers play a prank to make him he think he won the big prize, MacDonald goes from lowly, unknown clerk to successful man advising the bigwigs. Jimmy is another of Sturges’s real phonies, only in Jimmy’s case, it’s more true because he doesn’t know he’s a phony.

Here, Sturges critiques the American obsession with success, which is itself a ruse, as gatekeepers are all too happy to be associated with success rather than use their own tastes and judgment. Jimmy’s own boss Mr. Baxter — who’s quick to promote Jimmy to the advertising department as soon as he’s won and just as quick to demote him when the ruse is revealed — literally says to him, “I didn’t hang on to my father’s money by backing my own judgment, y’know.” Perhaps the most poignant moment comes early on in a quieter scene between Jimmy and his supervisor, who tells him he’s a success if he can earn his own living, pay his bills, and look the world in the eye.

The Lady Eve (1941): Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) and her father “Happy” Harry Harrington (Charles Coburn) are a father-daughter cardsharp team looking for their next heel on a cruise ship. When they target Henry “Hopsy” Pike (Henry Fonda), a snake researcher and heir to the Pike Ale fortune, no one expects Jean to fall in love with her mark, but that she does, until, of course, her profession gets in the way.

Where Sturges’s earlier movies focused more on the central male character’s story, The Lady Eve is his first with a fully fleshed-out female character in Stanwyck’s Jean. She’s tough and worldly as a fast-talking screwball flirt while being charmingly vulnerable when she’s falling in love, then hard-nosed and calculating after rejection. Stanwyck is a dream, and she even makes acting alone charming, as in a scene before her meet-cute with Henry — just before she trips him — where she narrates other women trying to get his attention, all seen in a frame-within-a-frame as she watches the action in a compact mirror.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941): Sullivan’s Travels is a love letter to the comedy genre. John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), a Hollywood director, is determined to stop making what he sees as meaningless broad comedies in favor of an artistic opus about the suffering of man, titled O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Indeed that’s where the Coen Brothers, big Sturges fans, got the name for their own film decades later.) But when Sully’s bosses demonstrate to him that he knows nothing of hardship, he vows to hit the road and find out what “trouble” is all about. He ends up instead finding Veronica Lake, whose character doesn’t have a name — she’s quite literally The Girl in the picture.

Sullivan soon learns that trouble isn’t so romantic, as he lands himself in jail. But it’s there, in a theater full of convicts and humble church patrons, where he finally learns the value of laughter to those who are hard-up: a break from thinking about those troubles. It’s Sturges deftly poking fun at the seriousness of high art and the devaluing of comedy. More astute, still, is the winking satire highlighting that those making serious art about poverty are often out of touch with their subjects’ circumstances.

The Palm Beach Story (1942): When film historians reference the craziness of Sturges’s movies, The Palm Beach Story is likely top of mind. Its plot, simply, is bonkers. When Geraldine Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) leaves her husband, Tommy (Joel McCrea) — whom she still loves — because they’re flat broke, she heads to Palm Beach where she quickly meets a rich suitor in J.D. Hackensacker (former teen idol Rudy Vallee reinventing himself), who’s eager to take her husband’s place. The trouble is, though, that Tommy’s followed her to Palm Beach, where she tells Hacksensacker that he’s her brother.

Palm Beach Story starts and ends with a wedding, and Sturges is more interested here in what’s called “the comedy of remarriage.” Along the way, audiences are treated to the outrageous supporting roles, including the Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor), who makes no secret of her attraction to Tommy. Astor and her jet-speed dialogue would run away from the entire film if it weren’t for her own suitor, Toto (Sig Arno), whose ambiguous European ridiculousness owns every scene he’s a part of, despite the fact that he barely has more than ten lines total. My favorite, though, is “the Weinie King” (Robert Dudley), the Texas millionaire who pays Gerry and Tommy’s rent. Meanwhile, Colbert herself is a master of that fast-paced screwball dialogue and gives Stanwyck a run for her money as Sturges’s strongest leading lady.

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944): Starring Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton, Miracle is in many ways Sturges’s middle finger to the censorship of the Hollywood production code. When Trudy (Hutton) gets married and pregnant while blacked out at a military party, she can’t remember the groom’s name, much less find him. So her childhood friend Norval (Bracken) steps in to marry her and save her reputation, but not without (of course) a comedy of errors resulting. Miracle’s ludicrous plot pointed to the many contradictions in the Hays Code. The code didn’t allow alcohol consumption onscreen, and acts and conditions that referenced sex (including childbirth) were verboten. So Sturges had Trudy get conked on the head while dancing, get married, and end up pregnant while not in a state to consent. And somehow, that seemed more tasteful to Hollywood censors.

While the plot’s dark undergirding is hard to let go of, particularly now, Miracle has its moments. It’s full of ridiculous pratfalls from Bracken and Trudy’s father Eddie (Sturges regular William Demarest) that add levity to an already outlandish story. Meanwhile, Sturges’s extended company of players steals the movie. Demarest and Diana Lynn (who plays Trudy’s sarcastic 14-year-old kid sister, Emmy) walk away with the whole film with their exasperated father-daughter arguments, and her pleas to “be refined, papa” every time their father blows a gasket.

Hail the Conquering Hero (1944): When Woodrow Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) heads home from the war, he receives a hero’s welcome. Only problem is he never actually served. He was discharged for hay fever but told his mother he’d been shipped overseas. When he kindly buys some actual Marines a meal, he’s quickly on his way home to a hero’s welcome. But the townsfolk are so excited about their hero, Woodrow can’t get a word in to explain, as his false legend snowballs. Soon enough, he’s unwillingly running for mayor.

Hail is an effective satire on Americans’ willingness to accept things only at face value, as Woodrow’s friends and neighbors are so quick to venerate him as a hero despite no actual evidence of his feats. Meanwhile, their enthusiasm overlooks the ugly realities of war, which Sturges subtly contrasts against Woodrow’s reception with the lives of his new Marine friends, some of whom don’t have families to return to. When Woodrow has stress nightmares, one tells him, “You’re lucky you don’t have ‘em all the time. Like some guys.” Of course, Woodrow’s desire to fight to tell the truth makes him more honest than any politician, and that’s the point.

Unfaithfully Yours (1948): Symphony conductor Sir Alfred de Carter (Rex Harrison) and his wife Daphne (Linda Darnell) are intensely in love. But when he suspects her of infidelity, his thoughts take a dark turn. That night Alfred fantasizes — as he’s conducting a large concert — about confronting his wife over her imagined transgressions. In the first, he murders her and frames his young, handsome assistant (assuming he’s her lover), and in another he plays the martyr, writing her a check to leave him. It’s grim until he puts his plan into action and finds fantasy and reality divergent.

Unfaithfully Yours flopped in the box office, reportedly because audiences couldn’t see its dark subject matter as funny. And that’s fair. But here Sturges is examining more than misogyny, fixing instead on his hero’s fragile masculinity. Truthfully, in the first half of the film, much of Unfaithfully’s humor comes largely from its supporting cast and some slapstick bits, like when the orchestra tries haphazardly to put out a backstage fire. But if audiences can hang in until Alfred actually tries to enact his revenge fantasy to much more hapless, slapstick effect, it’s worth the wait.

A Guide to Preston Sturges’s Comedies